Guilt is a social construct. We learn to feel guilt when we have violated an ethical or moral directive. I forgot to call my mom on her birthday, therefore she felt unloved, therefore I am the source of her feeling, therefore I should take her bad feeling away, but I can’t, so I’m going to feel bad. It’s a twist of logic — we know it’s impossible for us to shoulder the negative feelings or consequences that our actions create, but we have this lesson ingrained into us. If someone is experiencing discomfort because of us, we should (that dirty word) share it.
This is not a natural emotion, it is crafted; every time a parent or teacher or other authority figure says, “Look what you did! You should feel bad about that.” As children, we struggle with these directives — But, I have the toy now, so I feel good. Why would I feel bad? We learn, though, how to internalize the conflict between what we actually feel and what we “ought” to feel, and call that squeamish feeling guilt. This is evident in those individuals with psychopathy and sociopathy who do not experience guilt in a lasting way, and can justify away their guilty feelings.
When those of us without psychopathy/sociopathy/other disorders, feel guilty, we have a tendency to try just that — to justify our actions to make ourselves feel better. If the reason is good enough, we hope (in vain), we won’t feel guilty anymore. I forgot to call my mom because I had a really rough day at work and was so focused on trying to forget it I didn’t think about anyone else. Well, that just pulls in a fresh wave of guilt; society (usually in the voice of mom or another family member) tells us: That’s no excuse, you selfish person, your mom should be more important than your bad day. And that’s a fight with ourselves we cannot win — am I really more important than my mom? Guilt, guilt, guilt for even thinking such a thing.
The good news is that since guilt is not a byproduct of biology, but a learned emotion, we can fight it; we’re not going to unlearn guilt, but we can choose whether or not to feel it.
Guilt comes from a source — the guilt-loader. Sometimes this is another person, sometimes it’s yourself, sometimes it’s someone else’s voice in your head (which is rather both). The important thing about a guilt-loader is that they are trying to make you feel guilty. But, as many of us have already heard, no one can make you feel anything. Eleanor Roosevelt has reminded us, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In fact, no one can make us feel anything without our consent.
With that in mind, I must re-frame my previous statement: The important thing about a guilt-loader is that they are trying to cause you to feel guilt. That now opens the door for me to choose to not feel guilt. A cause does not guarantee an effect.
Here are some examples of guilt-loading statements:
“I should have mowed the lawn today…” (self)
“You should have called your mom.” (self, external)
“You shouldn’t be late to work.” (self, external)
“We should take care of the environment.” (self, external)
“I forgot to pay that bill.” (self)
“No one comes to see me.” (external)
Notice that in the first four of these examples, the word should is prominent. Anytime you hear or think that you should/ought to do/feel something, someone is guilt-loading you.
I want to spend a few moments on the last two before moving on to how to not accept the guilt. “I forgot to pay that bill,” is not in-and-of-itself a should statement, but lurking right underneath that guilty thought is the source — I should pay bills on time — ah, we found the should.
Most of the examples I’ve listed are what I will classify as self-guilt: things we could say to ourselves but could also come from someone else’s voice. The last example comes from a purely external source. I had an elderly aunt who was a miserable person; she was a widow, lived alone in the country, and every time I went to see her, no matter how energetic and enthusiastic I was when I walked in the door, by the time I left I felt like the worst kind of person.
It took me a long time to realize that every trip to see her was full of guilt-loaded barbs. Being young and naive, they hit the mark and I felt wave after wave of guilt. Sometimes it was about how we, as a species, are polluting the oceans (while she would show me pictures of sad, mangled, or dead sea life); sometimes it was about how her heat was going out and it was cold and drafty in her house; sometimes it was about how no one wanted to come and see her (especially when I was about to leave). She would call on the phone if I was late heading to her house, and say, “Oh, well I just thought you weren’t coming. I know you’re busy and it’s more fun doing other things.”
Almost everything she said was dripping, under the surface, in should statements. You should care more about me; you should fix the environment; you should fix my house for an old woman; you should think coming to see me is fun. It was a miserable experience, and one which finally tipped me over to trying to combat guilt. So, I’m grateful to my unhappy, guilt-loading aunt, for showing me that there is another way.
Any time someone throws guilt at you, whether it is your elderly aunt or yourself, you can choose not to accept it. You don’t have to feel guilty. That can be a hard statement to swallow.
Let’s assume that a) you have chosen not to feel guilty, and b) you can successfully enact that (not always easy), and walk through an example scenario.
- You threw a plastic bottle in the trash can instead of recycling it.
- You should take care of the environment — guilt!
- You refuse to accept the guilt.
- Nothing happens.
We tend to think, when we think about it, that guilt somehow moderates our actions. And it does, in a way. But more than that, our ethics and morals moderate our actions. Removing guilt from the equation does not mean that you will care less about the environment or that you will suddenly start running amuck and inadvertently killing sea-turtles. Your ethical standards will ensure that if recycling is important to you, you will continue to do it whenever possible. The only thing you have removed is the bad feeling you have in that moment, in every moment, when you (for justifiable reasons) did not recycle.
Here’s another example:
- You forgot to call your mom on her birthday because you had a stressful day at work.
- You should love your mom and remember her birthday — guilt!
- You refuse to accept the guilt.
- When you call your mom and apologize she either: a) understands and accepts it, or b) gets emotional and starts guilt-loading to try and elicit an emotional response in you.
If your mom does a), that’s great! If she goes the b) route, this is a chance to put your guilt-refusing skills to the test. For someone who goes to route b) instead of a), there is always a reason; usually this is based in insecurity. If you’ve recently moved away, or recently married, your mom may be feeling unnecessary and superfluous to your life. What she’s searching for in this guilt-loading is to hear that she is still important.
So let’s talk about step 3 — how to refuse the guilt. The key to refusing guilt lies entirely inside your own mind. Guilt, remember, is that disconnect between actual feelings and socially-expected feelings.
Confront the Should | Ought | Need to
When you threw that plastic bottle away (in the previous section) you probably felt nothing — but you should have felt something, you should have cared more about the environment and pollution and sea animals to be strongly invested in the terminal receptacle for that bottle. Let’s traverse through your hypothetical thoughts and their subtext:
Oh, ugh, I should have recycled that. But I’m at the gas pump, cleaning out my car — there’s no recycling here. I should care enough to take it home and recycle it there. But I’ve had this in my car for weeks and I haven’t recycled it when I got home, and I’m here right now, and the trash can was right there, and I was thinking about it — it was so much easier. You are selfish for caring more about how easy something is for you than the bigger issues of the world. Your selfishness is causing global pollution.
Woah. Really? It’s one bottle. Throwing away one bottle means I’m personally responsible for the world’s pollution? Do you see how far that single guilt-loaded thought took us? Let’s try to revise that thought train, starting at the guilty thought:
Oh, ugh, I should have recycled that. Oh, really, should I? I’m at the gas station, there’s no recycling here. I recycle at home, and whenever I have the opportunity. I just happen to be here, where that is not an option. This one bottle doesn’t make me a bad person, and it doesn’t mean I’m lazy. But if this is bothering me this much, maybe there’s something I can do to help me be better about getting stuff from my car to the recycle bin at home — I could put a little bag in the car and take it inside once a week, that way I always have a place at hand to do a mini-recycle.
At the end of the first mental encounter, you walked away feeling like a terrible person. At the end of the second, you walked away feeling like you could be an even better person by doing this one tiny change. Which way would you rather feel?
Let’s do another.
You forgot to call your mom on her birthday.
Oh, shoot! Yesterday was mom’s birthday. I was so focused on how awful that meeting went, I completely forgot. I should have called her. But I remembered in the morning! I’ll tell her that, maybe she won’t be as upset. Yeah, she will, that’s such a pathetic reason. I’m a terrible [offspring gender]. I’m so selfish. She deserves unselfish children, she has done so much for me and this is how I’m repaying her, with my selfish, uncaring attitude.
Now, you feel really awful and probably don’t want to call her because you’re just going to feel more awful. Any conversation you have will be centered around trying (and failing) to justify why you didn’t call: Hey, mom, sorry I didn’t call yesterday, I had this really awful meeting at work and I just felt so bad when I got home, I completely forgot to call. Here’s what happened… It will be guilt-filled and unpleasant, and both parties will hang up unsatisfied.
Let’s try to revise the thoughts, again:
Oh, shoot! Yesterday was mom’s birthday. I was so focused on how awful that meeting went, I completely forgot. I should have called her. Oh really, should I? Well, no, because should is a dirty word. I planned to call her, and I didn’t. Let me fix that: I can call her right now to tell her I’m thinking about her.
Now, you feel empowered, able to remove the source of the guilt, and by picking up the phone and dialing, you’re starting the conversation from a place you don’t need to justify: Hey, mom, I’m thinking about you and wanted to call. I wanted to call you yesterday on your actual birthday, but I wasn’t able to. How was your day, did you do anything special?
Move the Conversation Along
When you’re having a conversation (even if it’s with yourself) and guilt-loading comes into play, no matter who is doing the loading, after you have confronted the should and re-framed your thoughts, change the topic or guide the conversation in a different direction.
In the hypothetical conversation with your mom, instead of dwelling on the guilty thing, you glossed over it and directed the conversation to what you actually want to talk about — how her birthday went. It’s easy when you’re feeling guilty to dwell on the moment of guilt, in justification or explanation, like prodding a loose tooth with your tongue — you want to know it’s still there with the pain. Imagine you’re on the other side of that conversation — do you really want to listen to the outpouring of guilt? Does your mom want to talk about you and your problems, or does she want to talk about herself and feel like you care?
In the recycling situation, you moved away from the guilty thought of throwing the bottle away and into thinking about solutions.
Let’s tackle the elephant in the article: the miserable aunt. This, of course, could be your coworker, or child, or a cashier you encounter at the store.
We’ll start with:
AUNT: No one comes to see me.
YOU (thoughts): Gosh, that’s because you make people feel awful. Oh, no! I shouldn’t think terrible things like that. I’m glad no one can hear my thoughts and find out how awful I am. Just because she’s unhappy doesn’t mean I should come by less often, I should come by more. People not coming by are the reason she is so unhappy, and it’s all our fault for neglecting her. I need to come by more often.
YOU (say): Well, I know I don’t come by as often as I should, but I’m going to start coming by more often. Maybe I can drop by on Saturdays and help you with the shopping.
AUNT: No, you won’t. You’re busy and living your life. That’s okay, you don’t need to come and see your old, boring aunt. I’ll just get by all on my own.
Notice that each of her responses is designed to elicit a guilty response. This quick-fire guilt-loading take a while to get comfortable with combating. Let’s address just the first round:
AUNT: No one comes to see me.
YOU (thoughts): Gosh, that’s because you make people feel awful. Oh, no! I shouldn’t think terrible things like that. Oh, really, shouldn’t I? Well, it’s true, if unkind of me. But it’s also unkind of her to complain about people not coming by when I clearly made the effort to do so. I’m not going to let her bad mood infect me. You know, I think I’m going to make it my goal this visit to make her laugh. She’ll find it much harder to drag me down if I’m lifting her up.
YOU (say): Well, I’m here, now! And you know what, I saw this really interesting thing this week…
Now, she’s captivated by your story, hopefully laughing at some point, and next time she throws the guilt, it won’t be quite so powerful, and you’ll sidestep it again.
The earlier you can intercept and block the guilt, the better you’ll feel, but it’s never too late. Even if you’re ten minutes into a guilt-filled conversation, you can still try to get out from under it. It won’t be as successful as if you stopped the guilt train before it got momentum, but every little bit helps. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at identifying the insidious shoulds and oughts and need-tos, and the less guilty your life will be.
It can be especially challenging to refuse to accept guilt that you load onto yourself. It can help at first to write or type out your thought process to identify the should statements and find a rebuttal. Writing things down invokes different mental processes than just thinking them or even saying them. Seeing our dirty shoulds on paper instead of in our heads reduces some of its power and helps us distance the words from the emotion, in order to better refute it.
Remember, guilt is a social construct, and its purpose is to remind us of our ethics and morals. We need these guilty moments in order to live together in harmony with other people and our environment. However, guilt should be a reminder, a gentle tap on the shoulder, not a laborious emotion. A single moment of untreated guilt can sour a whole day, can spoil a happy memory, and can drag us through emotional muck. Stand up to guilt, and you’ll find life is a happier place.